The Patriots have managed to keep winning through myriad injuries, but they've learned a few things about their team as a result.
A team's depth will always be tested over the course of a season, but rarely as vigorously and through the losses of as many key players as the Patriots have had to endure.
Backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are playing better than expected, but there's some room for concern as to the long-term stability of the defensive tackle spot for several reasons.
Let's get right to the questions in this week's mailbag.
Vellano and Jones have been as good as could have been expected of an undrafted free-agent and a waiver-wire pickup.
Neither is an elite pass-rusher, but they're both creating some pressure up the middle -- which has been missing for awhile. Vellano has just one sack, but Jones has logged five; according to stats website ProFootballFocus.com, he's brought down the quarterback five times on 11 total quarterback pressures.
It's hard not to notice, however, that the Patriots run defense has fallen off a cliff. Opposing teams have begun to take a greater interest in establishing the run in recent weeks. The Bengals, Saints, Jets, Dolphins and Steelers ran the ball 168 times (42 attempts per game).
It hasn't been all bad, as those two have done a good job using their burst and good technique to penetrate the line to bring down opposing backs in the backfield at times, but holding gaps is not their strong suit at this point.
@ErikFrenz Based on where we stand today, what should the Pats priorities be in free agency and the draft respectively?— Brian Medeiros (@medeirob) November 7, 2013
Despite the better-than-expected production from Vellano and Jones, the Patriots could still use some help on the inside, whether it's through free-agency or the draft. Those two will make nice rotational rushers next season, but they will probably still be best suited in a limited role.
The Patriots have defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Isaac Sopoaga all under contract, but there are questions around each. Wilfork, Kelly and Sopoaga will all be 33 years old next year, with the first two coming off season-ending leg injuries.
Kelly is slated to count for $3 million against the cap next year, and Sopoaga is on the hook for $3.75 million. Both are candidates to restructure their deals, and if not, that could be a big blow to the Patriots depth at the position.
@ErikFrenz Why has a Thompkins disappeared? Can't he and Dobson both be productive?— Jordan Boss (@JBoss_) November 7, 2013
Good question, Jordan.
There's certainly enough space on the field for two X receivers, but that also limits the offense by forcing throws outside the numbers. Those are low-percentage throws that aren't always easy to hit. Tom Brady, himself, hasn't always hit those throws with resounding consistency. Therefore, to play to his strengths, it's probably best not to have two out of three to five receivers running routes on the boundary.
Dobson has been the more productive of late, so he's getting the longer look. Thompkins could find his way onto the field as a Z receiver, running underneath routes and lining up in the slot. There will be plays from time to time that will call for both on the field at once, but right now, I think the Patriots are focused on trying to make opponents respect the whole field with receivers that can go long and short, play inside and outside and run routes over the middle and on the perimeter.
As for the up-and-down performances of each, this is just part of the ebb and flow of a rookie season. Said wide receiver coach Chad O'Shea:
We have guys that have different skill sets, obviously, [and] they all bring a lot of contributions. We all have a lot of confidence in each of them, and, you know, it's a long season obviously. We're going to need all of our receivers. They're all going to make contributions, and there's going to be some ups and downs along the way, and I think it's important that they're able to handle the ups and downs and just stay very level-headed and stay the course, and they work very well together, and that's all we can ask.
I'm assuming this is between Jets quarterback Geno Smith, Dolphin quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Bills quarterback EJ Manuel.
Smith has been (way) up and (way) down throughout his young NFL career, but has shown some signs of progress along the way. Smith has a big arm and the Jets haven't been afraid to use it, throwing deeper than 20 yards downfield on 14.7 percent of his passes (fifth-most in the NFL) and with a 47.5 percent accuracy rate (fourth-highest in the NFL). I like his patience as a runner -- he doesn't take off all that often (36 rush attempts through nine games, where Robert Griffin III had 81 rush attempts through as many), so that will help keep him healthy longer.
Speaking of which, we don't have much of a sample size on Manuel for that very reason. The Bills QB was injured in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns and has not seen the field since.
I'll go with Tannehill because I think he's the more refined passer and he still possesses much of the athleticism the other two boast. Much of the problem has been a coaching staff that hasn't done enough to buy him time in the pocket (roll-outs, screens, running game and play-action). Much of his problems this year can be attributed to the beating he's taken from a league-leading 35 sacks through the first nine games.
Talked about this more in-depth in this spot, but let's just say I'm not ready to put them in the playoffs until they win two games in a row.
There are a few opportunities for the Jets to do that between now and the end of the season. They have just one game against an opponent with a winning record, against the Carolina Panthers on the road in Week 15. After the bye week, they face the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens on the road. They then have home games against the Dolphins and Raiders in Weeks 13 and 14, and close out the season with a Week 16 home game against the Browns and a road trip to face the Miami Dolphins in the season finale.
Either the Chiefs (9-0) or Broncos (7-1) will probably end up with the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, leaving the Jets to fight with the Chargers (4-4), Dolphins (4-4), Titans (4-4), and Browns (4-5) for the sixth seed. Whichever one of those teams gets to nine or 10 wins is likely to earn the final playoff spot.
Not soon enough for fans of the rival AFC East teams. He'll play until he's 40 just because that's what he's always said and he's so competitive, I don't know that he'll have it any other way.
Thanks for reading! Any more questions, send them my way on Twitter. We'll do this again next week.
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